"The Wizard of Panto-Land," Oregon Cabaret Theatre's fifth panto for the holidays that opened Friday, is somehow a kinder, gentler trip through the traditional British fare of fractured fairy tales, cross-dressing and topical humor.
With book and lyrics by Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo and music by Portland composer Eric Nordin, "The Wizard of Panto-Land" may start out as an homage to Dorothy and the magical world of Oz, but it is firmly — or maybe not so firmly — anchored in the tradition of hapless damsels, loopy sidekicks and wicked witches and stepmothers.
Dorothy's life in Kansas is far from boring, mainly because the dogcatchers are after Toto, Uncle Henry has disappeared and Auntie Em is a six-foot-something drag queen, hoodwinked onto the farm and definitely having "A Bad Day in Kansas."
Em has been saddled with eager, earnest Dorothy and her yappy dog and she is definitely not amused. Dorothy has the support of the farmhands ("You Gotta Have Heart"), but she's not a happy cornhusker, either.
That Kansas tornado drops Dorothy not in Oz but in Ozegon (pronounced "Ozygun," as we are frequently reminded). She does meet the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, and they all set out to find the Wizard of Ozegon, who resides on Wizard Island at Crater Lake, but that's where any resemblance to the classic story ends.
Giancarlo, who directs, has a fabulous cast for this romp. Emilee Yaakola is the perfect Dorothy with her cute face, adorable braids and absolutely superb voice. Matthew Steven Lawrence is lithe and appealing as the Scarecrow. Chris Carwithen stays perfectly in character as the digital version of the Tin Man; constructed of obsolete computer parts, he has a motherboard but lacks a heart. And Scott Ford is delightful as the Cowardly Lion, swishing and growling and meowing, longing for courage, dressed as "the Sun King-meets-chenille-bedspread."
Oh, yes, of course there is the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch ("of the Midwest"), who seems to have "an unhealthy obsession with shoes." But Dorothy also runs into the Wicked Witch of "Hansel and Gretel," Evilena of "Snow White" and the Witch from "Sleeping Beauty," who are all up to no good.
All of the witches and wizards and torch-singing Auntie Em are played by the astonishing Dante Maurice Sterling. Sterling is well over 6 feet tall with a huge voice, infinitely flexible face, and nimble grace. He towers over the rest of the cast and carries the action like a roller coaster.
In a clever twist, the audience becomes Munchkins and are cued to sing "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" at appropriate moments.
When the crew does reach Wizard Island — with the help and advice of Merlin (Sterling again!) and a gondola rowed across Crater Lake — they find the Wizard of Ozegon and the tale morphs yet again into something unexpected. Without being too much of a spoiler, did you know that Hogwarts is actually on Wizard Island?
Giancarlo and Nordin have framed the story with some lovely music, with distant nods to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney productions. Especially noteworthy are the rousing opener "A Bad Day in Kansas," the Tin Man's "Little Bird" and Dorothy's "I Don't Know Where I'm Going."
Resident Costume Designer Kerri Lea Robbins has once again fashioned fantasy out of the ordinary with spot-on, character-specific creations, including proper fairy-tale attire for Meagan Iverson, the production's excellent onstage pianist. Michael Halderman designed the versatile and haunting set.
"The Wizard of Panto-Land" has something for the whole family — kids and adults and even your out-of-town guests. It's delightful and, hopefully, will become a regular in the cabaret's repertoire.
"The Wizard of Panto-Land" plays at the cabaret through Dec. 31 with evening performances and Sunday matinees.
As always, dinner or brunch is available pre-performance, with dessert available at intermission. For a schedule, see www.oregoncabaret.com or call 541-488-2902.